Yr of the Broadband Will Construct Wisconsin’s Financial system and Enhance Entry to Justice

By Marsha Mansfield, JD
Director, LIFT Dane

Carlos is sitting in a McDonald’s parking lot trying to reach Zoom for his child support hearing at the local courthouse. Leila is waiting across town in the parking lot of her local library. Across Wisconsin, thousands of citizens rely on WiFi in the parking lot to access the Internet. The lack of digital access was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic as everything from legal proceedings, schooling, and health care migrated online, leaving thousands of Wisconsin residents behind. As the governor emphasized in his speech on the state: “Access to high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity.”

The digital divide has long hurt black, Spanish, low income, low income, and tribal and rural households. Statistics from the Pew Charitable Trust Research Center show that 79% of white households have broadband internet, while nationally only 66% of black households and 61% of Hispanic households do. A growing number of large and small businesses in our state are becoming part of the gig economy. For all of these reasons, funding the gubernatorial budget to improve broadband access is critical to the economic health and well-being of our residents. It will especially help those who need the internet to remove legal barriers to better employment and health.

The digital divide is the separation between those who have access to the internet and those who don’t. This includes both lack of access to a device that can access the internet and lack of access to connectivity. A recent cover story published in the Wisconsin State Journal highlighted the geographic divide in Wisconsin and cited a recent study by the UW Center for Community and Economic Development on the lack of broadband availability in our state. Governor Evers made universal access a priority in his recently released budget.

The lack of digital access harms Wisconsinites not only for educational or health reasons. During the COVID, our dishes have become virtual. State aid applications have gone online. More and more legal assistance is becoming available to remote communities that do not have access to lawyers but require broadband. Online legal clinics, legal advice websites, and legal hotlines like the State Bar’s Free Legal Answers website help thousands of people each year download forms, answer questions, and get free legal assistance in a variety of areas. However, all of these tools require internet access and are often expensive for the consumer.

Access to justice is central to the effective functioning of our democracy. The Pew Charitable Trust’s civil justice modernization project recommends specific ways to improve the availability and quality of free online legal tools for solving legal problems related to economic security. However, due to the lack of broadband access, these tools are not available to those who need them most.

Economics is more important than geography to determine who has broadband internet access. As Chris Stark, professor of underwater expansion and co-author of the centre’s report, explained, this means that vendors often do not offer anything or offer prohibitive prices. This is reflected in the results that in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 40% of households do not have fixed internet access.

Wisconsin needs a broadband fiber optic network that stretches across Wisconsin from Drummond to Galesville to Shullsburg and has a good quality internet connection.

Companies operating in Wisconsin must join the “Keep America Connected” pledge announced by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to support Wisconsinites’ ability to maintain phone and internet services during the COVID pandemic. By signing, companies agree to:

• Do not end the service for private or small business customers as the bills cannot be paid due to the coronavirus pandemic.
• Avoid late fees that private or small business customers incur due to their economic circumstances in connection with the coronavirus pandemic; and
• Open up Wi-Fi hotspots to every American who needs them.

It’s also important to make sure families have usable devices so our children don’t have to use their cell phones to attend classes or do their homework. A tablet or laptop is essential to access health and legal resources online. All of this can be achieved by supporting the governor’s budget proposal to fund universal access. A worthwhile investment for all of us.

Marsha Mansfield
Director, LIFT Dane
[email protected]

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